My wife and I have a very clichéd relationship with cleaning. She can see microscopic amounts of dust and declare a room in need of cleaning. I consider myself to be reasonably clean but really, if the dust bunnies are not actually dancing around the room then they are probably not big enough to worry about. But then, I never had to worry about the dust bunnies actually exploding so it’s a good thing that I’m not in charge of a shred plant.
I was recently given a tour of one of Iron Mountain’s shredding facilities which I have to confess was a lot more interesting than I had thought it was going to be. Forget your image of a huge office-style shred machine. Shred plants are real serious industrial stuff but combined with the high security of a bank operation. It’s quite an experience: these plants process lots and lots of paper and have conveyer belts, forklifts, shredding systems the size of a car, and enough automation to be mistaken for a Disney ride. [You can get a little idea of this by checking out a video of Iron Mountain’s shredding service which includes some footage of a shred operation]
And dust. But, surprisingly, very little dust. Weird – with all that paper being cut up you’d think they’d be knee-deep in paper dust, but they place looks almost new. In fact, it looks (to my eye) almost unnaturally clean for a factory. Which is really good because it turns out that paper dust is explosive. Not just flammable, but actually explosive. So they work very hard to make sure that they don’t have any. Explosive dust is a bad thing to have in a factory setting where there are many possible sources of sparks. A binder accidentally gets thrown in with the paper and the metal rings spark when they get shredded. Electrical switches can make sparks. A forklift scrapping against a beam can make a spark. And sparks and explosive material are not a good combination.
Iron Mountain has invested a significant amount to make their plants safe work environments, and this includes dust abatement. And since they want to make sure that they are always in compliance with the leading safety standards, they are now updating their plants to conform to NFPA 654. This is a standard with the imposing title of “Standard for the Prevention of Fire and Dust Explosions from the Manufacturing, Processing, and Handling of Combustible Particulate Solids.” It provides guidance on how to handle dust in factories and prevent fires and explosions. And this is a bit more complicated than handing out brooms and dustpans. If you take a tour of one of the plants that is already NFPA compliant the first thing you might notice (after all the interesting conveyers and shredding equipment) is the dust collection system. This is kind of like a giant central vacuum system that sucks in air from all around the shredder and filters out the dust. But that’s just part of the solution. You need to make sure that the dust can’t collect in corners of the facility as well, and if you look up you will see oscillating fans that are blowing on the beams up near the roof. This keeps dust from settling anywhere where it might build up.
And they don’t even rely on just estimating the amount of dust in the facility. There are all these signs on top of equipment and structures that say “do not dust”. If you can’t read the words, there is too much dust. As long as the text is clear, it’s clean. Simple, elegant, effective.
So why should anyone care about this? Well, obviously fires are just bad in general. They are certainly bad for Iron Mountain because they would have to fix the facility. It’s bad for the insurance company that has to pay for it (and then raise the insurance on my house to make up for it). And bad for the fire department that has to put out the fire (and then raise taxes to pay for more equipment). But fire safety is also important for the people that work there. They can be hurt or even killed in a plant fire or explosion. And it’s even ultimately bad for the customers who can face an interruption in their service while the plant has to be repaired. So NFPA 654 isn’t just another industry regulation to follow, it’s part of being a responsible corporate citizen for the neighborhood, the employees, and the customers.
So while the systems they have in place might not meet with my wife’s level of “clean,” it far exceeds my own tolerance for dust, which, after learning all this, has become a little less tolerant than it used to be. I certainly don’t want any exploding dust bunnies in my house. Now if I can just convince my wife to install one of those dust collection systems in our house…